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Nick Saban vs. Dabo Swinney, the perfect pairing for an epic rivalry

With their contrast in style and their high-stake battles, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney have the makings of an all time great rivalry.

MOBILE, Ala. — The coaches from the past two national title games visited some of their outgoing players at the Senior Bowl on Tuesday. As they answered questions about players moving on to the NFL, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Alabama’s Nick Saban highlighted the philosophical differences between the stewards of the nation’s two best programs at the moment.

Swinney was asked whether the Browns should select former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson first overall. “If they pass on Deshaun Watson, they’re passing on Michael Jordan,” Swinney said. “I’m just telling you. I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. I’m just an old funky college coach. But Deshaun Watson is the best by a longshot.”

Meanwhile, Saban was asked whether he believed former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard is a first-round pick. “I can’t really make a comment about that. I think it’s all speculation,” former Browns defensive coordinator Saban said. “I don’t know the other people in the draft at every position. There’s two things that happen in the draft. You have a draft grade, and then there’s where you get drafted based on supply and demand and what people need. Some positions have a greater value than others. There are a lot of factors that go into where somebody gets picked.”

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If you aren’t a fan of either school and you immediately like one coach more because of the way he handled the question, it’s probably an excellent window into your psyche. Each answer fit each coach’s personality perfectly, and the fact that these two stand atop the sport right now is good for college football. Saban’s dominance has sucked most of the competitive oxygen out of the SEC, but Swinney’s Tigers showed this season they can win using a different mindset. In the past two national title games, the teams each won one and were separated by one aggregate point. If this keeps up, it could be an all time great rivalry. Swinney, fan of hyperbole and fun, versus Saban, believer in understatement and Process.

If one of the army of Saban disciples (Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher, Florida’s Jim McElwain, Georgia’s Kirby Smart) had emerged as the challenger to Saban’s throne as the best coach in college football, this wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining. When Ohio State’s Urban Meyer was Saban’s chief foil, their personalties were too similar for those without a rooting interest to pick a favorite. This is easy, though. Dabo or Nick? Lakers or Celtics? Coke or Pepsi? Ford or Chevy?

There is no correct answer, of course. You’ll gravitate toward the one who fits your personality—just as their players have.

Swinney was pumped Tuesday because the Tigers will move later this week into the new football operations center that has been dubbed Daboland. It has a slide. It has a mini golf course. Tuesday, Swinney reminded an NFL team scout that if he is weary from the road while evaluating Clemson players, he can relax in the Tigers’ new Nap Room.

Alabama has top-notch facilities as well, but they are more utilitarian. For example, the Crimson Tide have a waterfall, but it is not a waterfall for a waterfall’s sake. It moves water into the cold tubs players use to recover after workouts. If the players want to play Putt Putt, they have to go off campus.

The beauty of this is that each method attracts a certain type of player, and those players tend to fit their coach’s chosen style. Swinney and Saban have created self-selecting samples that make it easier to continue their success. Defensive end Jonathan Allen, for example was the perfect player for a Saban team. Here’s how Allen described playing for Alabama before the Tide faced Washington in the Peach Bowl. “I wouldn’t say joyless existence,” said Allen, who probably will be a top-five draft pick. “That’s just the mindset you’ve got to have if you want to be great—if you want to have a legendary legacy. Everybody wants to be great. Everybody wants to be remembered and have their names etched in stone. If you want to do that, you have to have that relentlessness.” Meanwhile, defensive end Christian Wilkins, a likely first-rounder next year, is the perfect player for a Swinney team. Here’s how he celebrated winning the national title.

Swinney and Saban will have to work to keep this rivalry going. To play again, they’ll probably both have to make the College Football Playoff. Their recent recruiting suggests they can. But they’ll each have to overcome Fisher and his Seminoles, who play the Tide and the Tigers next season. Meanwhile, Meyer and Jim Harbaugh and James Franklin and Clay Helton all have their own ideas about which teams will meet in Atlanta next January.

College football is the most fun when the rivalries run deep and produce classic games. Alabama and Clemson have produced two amazing title games and a fascinating competitive dynamic. Here’s hoping the architect of Daboland can face the preacher of the Process a few more times.